Sri Lanka: without state support, Tamils rely on translations

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Mar 20 14:31:58 UTC 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

Sans state support, Tamils rely on translations internet for global

Tamil knowledge systems readily acknowledge the importance of
translations. In the past, there have been many voices articulating the
value of translation in order that knowledge and information posited in
languages other than Tamil is made accessible to Tamil language speakers.
However, effective translation of knowledge from one language to others is
limited. This is due to the mindset of communities or people who transmit
and receive knowledge through translations. Translating knowledge is
connected not only with sharing of knowledge and information but also with
power. Power of the English language and its central role in the
dissemination of information all over the world are simply because of the
colonial and neo-colonial domination by the English-speaking nations and
their systematic arrangements to maintain hegemonic control in the world.

On the other hand, contemporary developments in the Tamil language in Sri
Lanka are solely connected with, and depend upon, the power of so-called
'ordinary people. The Tamil language has little institutional support and
the role of the Sri Lankan state is limited to mere rhetoric on popular
platforms. Similarly, translations too have a story or history that is
solely dependent on the spirit of committed individuals and/or small
groups who more or less sacrifice their very existence to work on
translating texts, than to institutional support. Though acknowledging the
importance of translations, the tragedy of the Tamil intellectual
tradition is its unawareness of the importance and centrality of
translators for the expansion of knowledge. Translation is conceived of as
an act of mechanical copying, and the cerebral input by translators is
rarely taken into account. Translators are not considered artists or
intellectuals, they are perceived as mere copyists.

The art of translation, or the practice of translation, is basically
connected with a single word: 'why' The power and meaning of the single
word why' is enormous. It is connected with existing systems of knowledge
and social construction. It is a questioning of the existing environment
for its limitations and its powerlessness. In principle, translation is an
act of sharing knowledge, information and socio-cultural values.
Knowledge, information and values can be transmitted outside a group that
subscribes to the same language only through translation. Since knowledge
is power, translations empower those who would not have had the benefit of
that knowledge because access to it was restricted by barriers of

At the same time, translation can be exploited by those in power for their
own sectarian ends. A critical eye on the world news pages of the
vernacular media reveals the politics of translation and its construction
--how it subtly navigates the reader to control thought and behaviour.
Therefore the art of translation makes an immense contribution to the
manufacture of knowledge in order to control. But at the same time, this
art could be used to liberate and emancipate a community from the shackles
of oppression by strengthening and vitalising knowledge systems that
support such progressive endeavours. As mentioned above, the contemporary
history of translation in the Tamil context is mainly the story of
committed individuals and small groups.  Those who are involved in the art
are motivated by the importance of transferring information or knowledge,
thereby empowering and enriching their own knowledge systems, while
exposing theirs to world outside.  Basically, translations into and from
Tamil is an unrecognised act by invisible persons.

Despite their invisibility, these groups and circles are aware of the
importance of translation and consciously regard it as a form of political
expression. The role of the left movement in the 1960s and 1970s in this
regard is commendable. Translations of Marxian and Maoist literatures on
political and cultural issues, particularly literary works--novels, short
stories and drama--from Soviet Russia and China were very influential in
expanding Tamil speakers' knowledge of the world outside. The upsurge of
political nationalism among the Sri Lankan Tamils in the late 1970s and
1980s provided a boost to translations. The demand by Tamil readers for
the artistic and political literatures of other groups resisting
oppression gave a fillip to translations. Thus the political and cultural
works of Palestinian, African and the other oppressed nations and
communities were translated into Tamil.

The emergence of feminist activism in 1980s among the Tamils resulted in
the translation of a considerable amount of literatures and influenced the
transformation of the perspectives of the Tamil community. From the 1990s,
the rise of movements within civil society and resistance by small groups
and individuals to globalization paved the way for influential
translations of texts on political, social and environmental issues into

Most translations were not directly of original works. They were
translations of English translations. But a reasonable number of
translations were made from the Russian language with the support of the
Soviet government. Though very few, there are direct translations from
other languages too. English has become the platform for the transfer of
global information and knowledge in 'alternative media' spaces too. But it
has its own politics, despite being the most accessible and easily
available route for global communication. However, the political question
is to whom it is available and remains an easy path of communication. It
is an issue that must be addressed when looking at different agents of

Another major influence on translation in the Tamil context is the
emigration of Sri Lankan Tamils overseas in the late 1980s and 1990s and
their reaction to its cause. The emigration of politically active youth
and their life overseas in alien environments yielded new and strange
experiences that are entering the Tamil knowledge system. These youth, who
are essentially non-native-speakers of English with hardly any formal,
tertiary level education, are migrants to countries outside the
English-speaking world. They have responded to their relocation in new
environments by bringing into the Tamil knowledge system translations from
the French, German or Dutch. Their compilation of dictionaries is an
important feature of this practice. Once again, this too is a commitment
by individuals and small groups who are mostly living marginalised
existences in Tamil Diasporas.

The problem with such endeavours is that they are ad hoc and unsystematic.
>>From time to time, social movements raise their voices in favor of
institutionalised translation programmes, but such projects have not
really got going. A new feature in the field of translation is that of
translation studies gradually entering the curricula of academic
institutions, particularly institutions of higher education. The point to
ponder is of course its attachment to departments teaching English, and
English Language Teaching Units (ELTUs) in a variety of Sri Lankan
universities. It is rarely that translation studies are attached to
departments teaching Tamil. This is the product of a lack of understanding
of the uniqueness of translation studies. Translations are interpreted as
being from English, to English, or through English. In actual fact
however, translation is matter of knowing any two languages and the art of
rendering effectively what is in one language in the other. Basically a
person who has mastered at least two languages could be a translator.

Conceptualisation of translation as a part of other specialised fields in
academics such as the teaching of English literature or language, and
institutionalising it as a sub-unit of departments teaching English in
academic institutions, will only lead to a distortion of translation
studies. It will help strengthen English-centric knowledge construction
and the dissemination of the colonial master plan, which still influences
and controls academic programmes in post-colonial nations. Distortion of
the goal of translation studies also occurs due to a popular notion among
first language speakers that they have nothing to learn in their mother
tongue other than for formal examination purposes. The same fallacy has
infected the minds of the intellectual community in academic institutions
as well.

The lack of actual involvement by governments of newly-independent
countries other than manufacturing political rhetoric on official language
policy is a direct reflection of the actual state of politics in countries
emerging from colonial rule. The status of a language spoken by people
relates directly to the economic position of the community speaking that
language within a state, or a state within the international system.
Economic dependency will result in mental dependence and limit the
discussion of the use of native languages to rhetoric on political
platforms. Dealing with language issues in a practical way is directly
connected to the questioning of existing systems, particularly in
education and economics. Movements which raise the language issue for
social liberation usually concentrate and celebrate its dignity in the
past. In this, to some extent at least, they are engaged in a journey of
linguistic reversal to an idealised past, which emphasise notions of the
language's purity.

It is rare indeed to encounter or recall prominence given to translation
studies in such linguistic-based liberation movements. But translations
have a major role to play not only in the enrichment of a particular
language, but also in transforming the perspective of its native speakers
by restructuring their knowledge systems. Modern knowledge systems of the
Tamils are colonial construction and English-centric. They are
fundamentally the brain child of Thomas B.  Macaulay the master craftsman
of the Minutes on Indian Education.

Construction of the 'modern' world is basically the creation of western
colonialism. Though the colonisers might have physically departed from the
shores of their former possessions, they continue to maintain hegemony
over our minds, with our consent. This is in reality the politics of
'independent' states or the postcolonial state. Postcolonial states are
busily engaged in number of conflicts, internal wars, liberation
struggles, campaigns against international terrorism etc.  Tamils in
different parts of the world, but particularly Tamils of Sri Lanka, have
become enmeshed in this web of postcolonial reality.

The most visible consequence of this reality has been overseas
displacement and emigration of Tamils and their settlement in different
parts of the world. It is these groups that form the Tamil Diaspora that
are writing and translating literatures of the countries in which they
live. An important aspect of individuals and groups operating in the Tamil
Diaspora is their independence. Their work is not an imposition by a
superior force. It is decided and determined by the Tamils for the Tamils.
The internet in Tamil, the small-circulation magazines and the mainstream
media play an important role in this movement.

Tamils through the Tamil language are electronically connected to their
brethren in every nook and corner of the world now. And these linkages are
being used progressively too. The songs of popular Tamil cinema for
instance are a bridge of the 'Thamil koorum nal ulahu.' It has bonded
children in non-Tamil-speaking lands who are unfamiliar with the Tamil
language. The electronic medium that is globally interconnected is already
in operation. With Tamil language-users connected through cyberspace,
Tamils are experiencing the advantages of this global interconnectedness
and access through the Tamil language to information and knowledge. The
crucial question is how Tamils are going to organise themselves to use
this situation to achieve a positive space for members of that community
living scattered around the world. How is the favourable atmosphere going
to be exploited effectively to connect Tamils all over the world through
the Tamil language? How is a generation of Tamils unfamiliar with their
mother tongue going to be connected through the support of the Tamil

Finally it will determine how we are going to manipulate cyberspace to
transform Tamil knowledge systems to achieve a world in which all Tamils
can live in freedom, unbound by the shackles of caste and creed and
political affiliations.

By: S. Jeyasankar


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